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Pianist to perform musical duet with slime mold

Say hello to one half of a musical duo premiering this weekend -- a single-cell organism that usually hides out in wet forests.

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Eduardo Miranda, a professor at the UK's Plymouth University, has figured out how fungus can make music. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

There's a fungus among us -- and it's quite talented.

The organism, physarum polycephalum, will perform Sunday as half of a musical duo appearing at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival sponsored by the UK's Plymouth University. The other half, on a grand piano fitted with small electromagnets, will be professor and composer Eduardo Miranda, head of the school's Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research. Miranda has found a way to use fungus cultures to drive an interactive "biocomputer" that picks up and responds to sound signals.

Biocomputers combine silicon processors with processors made from microbiological organisms. In this case, that organism is a yellow slime mold that inhabits moist, shady forests and woodlands. Its body can conduct electricity, so it's been recruited to form a living component of an analog circuit that can change its state according to what it "hears."

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Slime mold forms part of an analog circuit in the musical biocomputer. (Click to enlarge.) Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

To write his composition, titled "Biocomputer Music," Miranda and team designed iPad software that communicates with the musical biocomputer and allows the pianist to employ specific clusters of electromagnets. A microphone picks up the notes Miranda plays and delivers them to the computer.

Depending on how the single-cell organism reacts, "this triggers a set of notes, or an accompaniment, that is then sent to the electromagnets and they play the strings of the piano," Ed Braund, a doctoral student at the Centre for Computer Music Research, explains in the video below. Specifically, they hover just above the metal strings, causing them to vibrate and produce distinctive sounds that alternate between eerie and ethereal.

Miranda stresses that the slime mold can be programmed to play any kind of music. "At the end of the day this is just a new musical instrument; musicians can play whatever they like on a piano, guitar or sampler," he told the site Noisey.

Next up, Miranda and his team hope to conduct further experiments, with the aim of creating more sophisticated machines that tap the fungus. "My goal is to make this technology more widely available, so other musicians can have a go as well," Miranda said.

Who knows? Before long, slime mold could be sweeping the Grammys.

(Via BBC News)